In Memoriam et Gloriam: Katherine Russell Rich

I think people have this idea that cancer calls for a type of unattainable, comic-book fearlessness -- the ultimate cognitive dissonance, if you will -- whereas people who are flawed and anti-heroic and who embrace their fears prove to be the most courageous and inspirational of all.
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I've made friends in all kinds of strange ways but for the first time a few weeks ago I befriended a person who is no longer living. I assume she'll never know about our friendship, though I do hope she might have been agreeable to it, given a chance.

My new friend's name is Katherine Russell Rich. Kathy was a writer and cancer survivor whose survival ended this past April, 24 years after her doctors told her that she only had a year left to live. For that reason alone, even though I'd never heard of Kathy while she was alive, she had me at "hello." I draw sustenance from people like Kathy who defy the odds. A friend of mine asked me if I'd ever read Kathy's book, The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer and Back. At first I thought, Oh no, not another cancer memoir to read, because even though I had just shamelessly added my own memoir to that overcrowded genre, the process of publishing had required me to reread my own manuscript ad nauseum, making corrections. What's worse, I belong to that group of easily frightened cancer survivors who get panicky when they read cancer stories of no-longer-surviving survivors. I'd sooner read a book about the origins of basket-weaving or the Franco-Prussian War. I was spared many of the worst ravages of my type of cancer (non-Hodgkins lymphoma), and I also managed to sidestep chemotherapy and radiation, and thus I tend to avoid reading books that talk about how bad things could someday get for me.

Thus I can't quite explain what sucked me into reading Kathy's book. Was it the arresting picture on the book's cover, a portrait of the upper half of Kathy's striking face during one of her chemo-induced bald periods, her eyes piercing and beautiful? Maybe it was her book's opening sentence: "I found the lump 20 minutes before breakfast, three weeks after my marriage broke up." I'd also had an upside-down marriage when I got my first cancer diagnosis, so I could relate, though that's still a helluva good opening line, right up there with "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold" (a personal favorite, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). I found myself reading on with a mix of trepidation and curious abandon.

As I progressed though Kathy's story, I quickly realized that, to put it bluntly, her breast cancer made my cancer look like a weak little punk. While lymphoma and breast cancer can be equally demonic, as with rogue-state nuclear laboratories it all depends on when you first catch sight of them. Kathy's breast cancer was late-stage and mature in its viciousness, whereas I was an early-detection lucky bastard with a couple of malignant, though indolent, tumors. Kathy's cancer got into her bones and literally fractured them from within. Say what you want about the pain you've had in your life, that's some serious make-you-wanna-die kind of hurt, which she describes in eloquent and excruciating detail. Yet as punishing and alien as Kathy's physical ordeal was to me, I found myself laughing with recognition at many of the emotional and psychological pitfalls she ran up against, such as endlessly being asked "How are you?" as if the roller-coaster of cancer ever left one with a desire to answer that useless and fraught-with-nuance question. As Kathy so cleverly puts it, "If the interest was vicarious, the concern made me recoil. 'I'm fine,' I'd say, and be exasperated when someone would insist, 'No, really. Tell me. How are you?'"

Then there was the dating proposal from Kathy's well-meaning friend, who tried to set her up with a guy with leukemia, as though cancer were the commonality she'd be seeking in a relationship. (SWFWC slated to die soon seeks SWM with similar. Yeah, right.) It reminded me of a story my ex-wife from Beirut once told me about a Vietnam vet who tried to get in her pants by "bonding" over war trauma. It's amazing what some people think leads to romance.

What I really like about Kathy is how imperfect she was -- by turns gruff, insecure and self-involved. I think people have this idea that cancer, or any sort of life-threatening crisis, calls for a type of unattainable, comic-book fearlessness -- the ultimate cognitive dissonance, if you will -- whereas people like Kathy who are flawed and anti-heroic and who embrace their fears prove to be the most courageous and inspirational of all. She had a relentless determination to get everything down on paper for herself, but also for the next person.

She just as easily could have decided to let her ordeal perish into the thin air of distant memory, where she could safely avoid revisiting it. But thankfully for us, Kathy's cancer fight set off a personal transition within her to become a writer. She'd worked for years as an editor and claims she only began writing when she couldn't find a writer to hire, though I suspect somewhere in her fiber she always knew she had the chops.

Kathy had perfect pitch for irony, as when during one of her remissions a spare-change guy asked her for money, saying, "I'm looking for work":

"Me too," I exclaimed. "I don't have a job either."

"Well, at least you have your health," he said, backing off.

"Actually, that's not true!" I said, on a roll. "I had cancer."

"Well, everyone's got problems," he said snappishly, and walked away.

Kathy went on to write another highly acclaimed book in her life, Dreaming in Hindi, and by all measures she had more fine work where that came from. So for now all I can say is rest in peace, my new friend, if rest and peace are what comes next on the cosmic calendar. Whatever the case, I'm sure you'll find a way to mine it for new material.

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For more on becoming fearless, click here.